Why labour’s battle is far from over

Posted on December 5, 2010


(First published 03.12.2010)

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary on December 1. And the federation, along with the labour movement as a whole, can claim some stunning victories in the years since the modern movement erupted onto the scene in 1973. This includes the establishment, in 1985, of the country’s largest trade union federation.

But these victories, encapsulated in the Bill of Rights and in labour legislation outlining basic conditions, employment equity and the relationship of bosses to workers, remain tenuous; paper guarantees. The Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the various labour laws only provide the promise of a better life and of equality under the law.

But these promises are a major advance on the previous era. However, as National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) general secretary, Frans Baleni, puts it: “At one level, almost nothing has changed since those days in 1946 when the mine owners and the state sent in troops to gun down striking miners.”

He notes that the enforcement agencies can — and do — apply the laws and regulations in a biased manner. “If a mineworker steals a spoon, he is always fired and prosecuted while mine owners are allowed to break the law with relative impunity,” he says.

This impunity applies to everything from regulations about safety standards, to callous policies that enable mining companies to avoid legal responsibility for occupational disease, injury and death. The difference today is that a Constitution, laws and regulations exist that make certain actions not just immoral or unfair, but illegal.

It is a major difference: in the past, miners could be abused and even killed within the ambit of the law. Today, such conduct can be prosecuted through the courts.

“But only when the law enforcement agencies are prepared to act,” says NUM spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka. In what seems to be another echo from the past, he notes that government departments and staff in other institutions are often fearful of talking out or moving against “individuals who are politically connected”.

Baleni too, has drawn this conclusion, pointing to the ongoing Aurora Empowerment Systems debacle involving the Grootvlei and Orkney gold mines. More than a year ago, Aurora, headed by Khulubuse Zuma and Zodwa Mandela, respectively the nephew of President Jacob Zuma the grandson of Nelson Mandela, took over the mines with the promise of permanent employment for the 5 500 miners.

“Ever since then there has been no proper payment of wages, lots of talk and no action,” says Seshoka. Belatedly, there has been considerable publicity about the goings on at Grootvlei and Orkney, including the shooting to death in October of four “illegal miners” .

Belatedly is the operative word. Complaints and press releases by the union about the human tragedy unfolding on the Aurora-owned mines were ignored for months. And when the issue was reported on, it was mainly in terms of of finance; the miners were mere ciphers, anonymous background to the wheeling and dealing going on.

NUM also maintains that the action taken against the mine security detail responsible for shooting dead the four “illegal miners” was belated. “It only happened when one newspaper reported on what had happened,” says Seshoka.

Media publicity is crucial, he admits, but it has been poor and sparse. As a result, almost nothing is known of the miners, their lives, hopes, families — and of their suffering. Possible Malaysian and Chinese investments and the latest deals in which Khulubuse Zuma is involved are the media focus.

And Zuma, at the heart of the human rights scandal that is Aurora, has not been condemned by government or even some union leaders. Instead, his partners in a new and controversial $6 million oil deal in the DRC include his uncle’s attorney, Michael Hulley and human settlements minister Tokyo Sexwale’s Mvelaphanda Resources.

“But then workers are the poor and the poor are always marginalised,” says Seshoka. Another example, he notes, is that while virtually nothing is known of the four men who were shot dead underground, there has been plentiful coverage of the man who admits the killings, Bradford “Bad Brad” Wood.

Wood is usually described a “Big Brother celebrity” whereas he might just as readily have been described as a convicted fraudster with a reputation for being trigger-happy, having been involved in two public shoot-outs last year. And there has been little public questioning about how or why a supposed Black Economic Empowerment company came to hire Wood and his cronies, several of whom served with apartheid’s murderous Koevoet police detachment.

There have, of course, been occasional reports of Aurora miners without water or electricity, let alone food; little about the R1.7 million in solidarity that has come from fellow workers to help sustain them, especially over winter. There has also been publicity about the legalistic squabbles among the “fat cats”, all of it of no real interest to the miners or to their union.

NUM’s approach to the issue is simple: pay what is owed. This includes provident fund monies and full disclosure of Unemployment Insurance Fund contributions.

But, says NUM, the reaction from Aurora to these demands was an attempt to avoid paying out savings owed to miners from other countries. Among the estimated 4 000 workers left — a number have given up hope and walked away and several have died — are miners from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland.

The union says wages and free transport were offered to “foreign” workers. The first bus arrived at Grootvlei on November 19, but, on the advice of the union, nobody boarded it.

Says Seshoka: “It was obvious that management wanted to get the workers back across the borders and, because their work permits have not yet been renewed, they would not be able to return to claim their provident fund money.”

Whatever the truth of this matter, what has happened at the Aurora mines over more than a year makes a mockery of all the union victories.